Jonathan Boulangeat logged into Zoom on a Thursday evening in March, in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic and long before the idea of video hangouts gripped the mainstream. Like many people this young Parisian professional, who is handsome, unfailingly polite and always sharply dressed, was here to work. Entering the call, and virtually face-to-face with his clientele, it was time to pop the cork on his bottle of champagne. It would be the first night of many, many more.
“When I moved to the U.S. I started out down in Florida for a year, but then I came to New York City on a mission,” he said. “I needed to reveal this sleeping beauty that we’ve always had, yet nobody knew about.”
As the Champagne Ambassador to the U.S. for RARE Champagne, the prestige brand of Piper-Heidsieck for the past five years, Boulangeat is responsible for bringing the champagne maker’s vintages into the limelight. Depending on who you ask, though, it can be a much easier or harder job than it sounds. RARE has been in the business for decades, but is renowned for creating only 11 vintages throughout its existence, ranging from 1976 to 2008.
Though these vintages are so, well, rare, nearly every one of them was created in a difficult year for the spirits industry, an ideology that Cellar Master Régis Camus has championed.
“Camus is really a legend, he loves to challenge Mother Nature,” Boulangeat said. “Even in difficulty he can find beauty with his creations.”
In 1976, Europe was hit by a massive heatwave, with barely a drop of rain to be seen from May through to September. Yet, RARE’s 1976 vintage is considered a masterpiece to this day.
That “sleeping beauty” that Boulangeat referred to earlier is Rosé Millésime 2008, the most recent Rosé that RARE has put on the market. Although it comes from a brand of such prestige, Boulangeat said it was practically unknown, yet he considered this vintage to be one of the best they’ve ever made. Thus, with a call to action he needed to answer, he was sent on a quest to make this hidden treasure known. His destination, the Big Apple.
“When my boss told me that I had to go from Miami to New York City, at first I said ‘No, thanks, I’m good in Miami,’” he recounted with a laugh. “He said that coming here was important, because if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.”
Some echoed sentiment from Old Blue Eyes, for sure. And he wasn’t kidding either.
In the pre-Covid days, when going out for dinner wasn’t met with the same discretion as walking into an erupting volcano, Boulangeat began to reach out to what he called “prestige brands” in an effort to push the bottle as a spirit of equal stature. He eventually reached a deal with Bagatelle, a swanky French bistro with a hoping brunch scene, where it almost immediately became a sensation, and deals with other restaurants followed.
However, this hoity, white tablecloth facade wouldn’t last long. “Champagne itself is synonymous with the party scene,” Boulangeat said. “It was only a matter of time before it made its way to nightclubs.”
Here, Rosé Millésime 2008, which retails for $450 a bottle, became a smash hit too. It’s secret to success? Boulangeat credits the shining tiara attached to every bottle. Any celebrating birthday girl or practically anyone who’s had more than a few glasses would peel it off and wear it all night. It’s a free party favor, so why not?!
By this point, you’re probably wondering what it tastes like. Firstly, RARE Champagne goes a bit against the grain by never using oak barrels as opposed to their contemporaries. According to Boulangeat, Camus has a saying: “The only place in Piper you’d find oak is in the stairs.” Made of 70% Chardonnay and 30% Pinot Noir, it features tropical notes of pineapple, kiwi, lime and others. Boulangeat says that an optimal way to enjoy it is a little while after pulling it from ice, giving it a nutty, buttery, almost mushroomy aroma.
Soon, the vintage became more and more common of a sight in the most upscale of spots, from private tables at pulsing nightclubs to snazzy bars in hotel lobbies. At Bagatelle alone, around 1,200 were sold in only 6 months. At the Baccarat Hotel, it was picked up by Wine Director Matthieu Yamoum, who was also previously featured here, where it went for $180 per glass and quickly became a bestseller. Business was booming, and Boulangeat’s mission to spotlight the bottle could not be going better.
However, hindsight is 2020. We know what happens next.
With the ensuing global health crisis, these once bumping dining and drinking scenes went silent. Many shuttered their doors and waited out the storm. Most others in Boulangeat’s position probably would’ve been forced to do the same. However, he saw where the wind was blowing, and steered his ship in a different course.
Many other companies and brands were working on trying to reach a homebound audience, and Boulangeat sought to do the same. Much like another spirits-related brand, he was to make sipping on bubbly a virtual experience. But, in true RARE fashion, they’d crank it up to 11.
For a starting price $250 a person, which includes smoked salmon from Petrossian and a boittle of Rare 2006, clients can have an online tasting session with Boulangeat. With numerous friends in other businesses, and generally being an expert at making contacts by now, Boulangeat got in touch with a number of suppliers to create tailor-made packages to go along with the champagne, and we’re not talking cheese platters. First, there was caviar… then there was fresh langoustine from Norway, French chocolate, you name it, there was a package set up for it. Even though there was little fanfare for its announcement, the first session accrued 20 reservations in an hour.
Boulangeat recounted the first time he held a session, all the way back during the initial days of the pandemic in the U.S.
“We had people from Florida, Connecticut, and people from the West Coast,” he said. “It was a tense time. Everyone had their cameras on, you could see there was a lot of emotion. Some were crying because they hadn’t seen people for a long time. I remember there was this older couple, the husband in a full tuxedo and the wife in a beautiful dress. For them, this was their night out.”
Every Thursday night from then on at 6:30 P.M. EST, people gathered on their computer and phones for a night of virtual socializing. Like most other companies and brands that took this route, Boulangeat sees no reason to cancel this once the pandemic is over. It’s also expanded far beyond simply tasting, with a recent cooking class being hosted by Michelin-starred chef Gabriel Kreuther. There’s even one presentation in the works that will be live from the Louvre, where RARE will be showcasing an artistic bottle worth $150k.